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Woburn Abbey

Woburn Abbey from the south-west about 1900 [X291/83/157]
Woburn Abbey from the south-west about 1900 [X291/83/157]

Woburn Abbey is one of the county’s iconic buildings. It has probably had more ink spilled over it than any other structure in Bedfordshire and so this page will deal with it very simply as it cannot hope to do it justice. Of the Cistercian abbey no obvious external trace remains. Tradition states that the current stately home was built on the site of the cloister. A drawing of 1661 does not show any medieval architecture and the present building was almost entirely rebuilt to the design of Henry Flitcroft in the mid 18th century.


The Abbey was listed by the former Ministry of Works in October 1952. The property is listed as Grade I, of exceptional interest. The ministry reckoned that the current building does incorporate some of the fabric of the medieval abbey and notes that the first rebuilding took place around 1630 by Francis, the 4th Earl. Most of this disappeared in remodelling by Henry Flitcroft, to plans by John Sanderson, between 1747 and 1761. Further reworking took place between 1787 and 1790 by Henry Holland. The current building is faced in ashlar, mostly Ketton oolite and Totternhoe clunch limestone. The roofs are covered with slates. From the 18th century the building was quadrangular but the east wing and the east ends of the north and south wings were demolished in 1949 and 1950. Local architect Sir Albert Richardson then added pavilions to these north and south wings; these have three storeys whereas the rest of the building has two storeys and attics.

The East Front of Woburn Abbey (now demolished) about 1900 [X291/198/42]
The East Front of Woburn Abbey (now demolished) about 1900 [X291/198/42]


Since 1954 Woburn Abbey has been one of England’s stately homes open to the fee paying public. It is interesting to note that this idea was considered as long ago as 1840 [R3/4265]. Before this visitors were by invitation only, unless the sovereign decided to pay a visit, as Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) did in 1572. The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (1901-1910) also visited in 1880 [OR2281/2].


As may be expected the Russell archive held by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has many references to the Abbey. The following are just the main sources:

  • RBox356 bills for repairs c.1700-1708 and 1660-1690;
  • RBox762-765 enlargement 1749-1756;
  • R248-249 rebuilding a wing: 1767;
  • RBox393-394 rebuilding 1787-1794;
  • R4/608/32 dimensions of rooms, repairs to be done etc 1813-1819;
  • R3/2290, 2292 estimates for hot water heating 1838;
  • R3/4265, 4269, 4272 and 4273 possibility of showing the abbey and regulations for tickets: 1840;
  • R1/1007 conversion to a hospital: 1914-1918.


The abbey has a number of buildings of interest in close proximity. Most of these are not open to the public but are worth noting. To the north-east of the abbey is The Grotto, listed by the former Ministry of Works in January 1961 as Grade II*, a more important building of special interest. It was built about 1839 for John, 6th Duke of Bedford and the small, single-storeyed octagonal structure is constructed with rubble walls of mixed stone types. The interior is patterned with cobbled floors; the walls and ceiling are ornamented with shells, quartz, graphite etc. brought from Cornwall and the Dukes’ ancestral home, Devon.

Just south of The Grotto lies the Chinese Dairy, also listed in January 1961, but as Grade I. The listing describes it as being “in Chinese Chippendale style”. It was designed around 1788 by Henry Holland for Francis 5th Duke of Bedford. The listing notes: “flanking covered ways are simpler and not in the Chinese in style, and may be later additions. The porch was added as early as 1804 by Humphrey Repton. The dairy is mostly built of painted timber, with slate roofs. The interior has ornate painted decoration, probably by John Grace; it is mostly mock fretwork and bamboo-work, in blue-grey, ochre, gold and black.

The Chinese Dairy about 1900 [X291/198/41]
The Chinese Dairy about 1900 [X291/198/41]


Two stable blocks lie behind the abbey. Both were listed in January 1961 as Grade I. They are identical and originally flanked the now demolished east front of the Abbey. They were designed about 1750 by Henry Flitcroft for John, 4th Duke of Bedford and are built of ashlar with slate roofs. They ere built around a quadrangle and had two storeys but the north stable block had part of the north-east angle of the wall demolished at the same time as the east front of the Abbey was pulled down. This angle now has a single storey.


Two lead troughs lie behind the Abbey. They are also Grade II listed and date from 1750. Just south of the east end of the Sculpture Gallery lies a Coade stone urn, Grade II listed, which probably dates from the early 19th century. Coade Stone was developed by Eleanor Coade about 1770. It is a form of artificial stone properly known as lithodipyra. She set up and ran (until her death in 1821) a company to make the material.


A private garden south of the abbey has a number of Grade II listed piers, urns, railings and urns, all in stone from the early 19th century. There is also a bronze statue from the late 19th century. It depicts a mermaid pulling down an adolescent cupid from a rock.


The Sculpture Gallery lies south-east of the Abbey and may be hired by members of the public for events such as parties and weddings. It was listed as Grade I in January 1961. It was built as a conservatory about 1790 by Henry Holland for Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford. In 1818 it was remodelled as a sculpture gallery by Sir Jeffry Wyatville; most of the sculpture has now been removed. The building is in ashlar with a slate roof and comprises a long, rectangular block of a single storey. Each side has a number of French windows and the centre is surmounted by a shallow dome designed by Wyatville. The centre has eight ancient columns brought from Rome by the 5th Duke and installed by Wyatville to support the dome. Adjoining the east end of the Sculpture Gallery is the Camelia House, again listed as Grade I in January 1961. It was built as a conservatory in 1822 by Wyatville. It is brick with ashlar dressings and has a single storey.

The interior of the Sculpture Gallery about 1900 [X21/760/10]
The interior of the Sculpture Gallery about 1900 [X21/760/10]